Ordinary People

In Ordinary People, Diana Evans follows two couples as they grapple with the possibility that, after years together, they are no longer in love. Melissa and Michael, the couple that is the center of the book, live in South London with their two children. Melissa works at home as a freelance designer and Michael commutes into the city. Neither is entirely satisfied with their situation, as the stress of raising two small children (and the unequal burden each of them carries) forms a barrier between them. Sex and togetherness are no longer a priority, and when they do find time, they just don’t feel the passion they used to.

Their friends, Damien and Stephanie, are in a similar state. They live in the suburbs with their children, where Stephanie strives to create a home of perfect domestic bliss. But the death of Damien’s father has raised in Damien feelings of unrest and dissatisfaction.

Although the novel focuses on the challenges of marriage, Evans works in ideas about culture and heritage, as well as the difference between dreams and reality. But the core of the story deals with what happens when romance fades and real life takes precedence. These are black couples, and their race matters to the story, but this isn’t a book that’s particularly about race. It’s just part of who they are.

Most of the book is written in a realistic mode, recounting in third person how each character feels as events unfold. But then there’s a sequence toward the end that reads like horror. One character’s fears appear to manifest as actual spiritual phenomena. This development took me entirely by surprise. There are hints of spiritual activity throughout the book, but I expected it all to remain in the characters’ heads. What’s interesting here is that it’s never really clear what is real and what isn’t. Evans seems to be leaving it to readers to decide.


Posted in Fiction | 3 Comments

Learning to Swim

Abigail Onions was something of a misfit at school. She had trouble with a bully and didn’t have a lot of friends. For years, her only friend was not someone she especially liked, just someone willing to spend time with her. But then Frances Radley came to her school, and Abigail had a new friend and a new family. The chaos of the bustling Radley household was a change from the quiet tension of Abigail’s home. And, at Frances’ house, there was always the hope of getting to see her older brother, Rad.

This book by Clare Chambers is a slow-moving story of growing up and falling in love and then losing that love. From the start, there are signs of great drama, but the actual events are slow to emerge. We know, for instance, that Abigail lost contact with the Radleys and had some strong feelings about it because the book begins with adult Abigail seeing Rad for the first time in decades. As Abigail tells her story, there are also hints about secrets within both the Radley family and her own family.

Chambers takes her time setting up what kind of person Abigail is, what her friendship with Frances is like, and what the Radley home feels like before the events that caused Abigail to lose touch. For me, the scene setting before the unraveling was a bit too slow. I usually don’t mind a slow narrative, but in this case, I wasn’t really clear what kind of book I was reading and what the nature of the events to come might be, which made it harder for me to maintain interest. For a while, it was a coming of age story, then it’s a romance, but there are hints of dark psychological drama. And it is all of these things to some degree. (It actually won the Romantic Novel of the Year award from the UK’s Romantic Novelists’ Association, so there’s that.)

Even with the slowness, I did end up enjoying this book. I especially liked the present-day storyline that frames the narrative. For most of the book, Chambers immerses readers in young Abigail’s perspective, and seeing her (and her peers) stepping back later and reconsidering their views was pleasant. It’s not that their big feelings in their youth weren’t warranted. They were! But they were also feelings that could evolve over time, and I liked seeing that.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 2 Comments


When Ada was born, she did not come into the world alone. She was accompanied by a group of spirit/gods, or ogbanje. These spirits were largely silent, but they had an influence that grew over time. In Akwaeke Emezi’s novel, they speak as a group about those years:

We made ourselves big and strong for the Ada, we tried to, because she was solidifying into something lost and bereft. We were still very weak, as newborns often are, but we were determined to spring into sentience, to drag ourself upright, clawing grips into the sides of her mind. We could not have done it if she was not the type of child that she was, ready to believe in anything.

When Ada gets older and leaves Nigeria and attend college in America, the spirits become louder, with one of them, Asughara, taking on a sort of protective role, shielding Ada after she is sexually assaulted. Over time, the spirits and Ada develop arrangements among themselves that shift as Ada’s needs change. Sometimes they get along well, but sometimes Ada fights them. Sometimes they seem like protectors, and at other times they seem like the source of Ada’s problems.

Although I’m not familiar with the Igbo spirituality that fills this novel, and I’m sure I missed some of the layers of meaning as a result, I found this a fascinating look into what it must feel like to struggle with mental illness (at least, with particular forms of it). Ada is both in control and not, her mind is both her enemy and her friend. The spirits drive her to self-destructive behavior, but she doesn’t always know she’s doing it. They stand by when she takes deliberate steps to hurt herself, but they keep her from experiencing certain traumas.

The book also gets into questions of identity, as Ada tries to figure out what qualities constitute her true self. Her gender expression evolves, as does her spirituality. How these evolutions tie into the presence of the ogbanje is not entirely clear, which I thought was wise. All of these elements come together to form a person, but one element isn’t necessarily the source of the other.

For me, the lack of clarity is part of what makes the book so interesting. Emezi doesn’t present a clear-cut view of any of these aspects of Ada’s life. Much of the book is narrated by spirits we perhaps shouldn’t trust, and, when Ada speaks, it’s not clear to what degree she understands what’s happening to her. There are no obvious answers, but there is hope. By the end of the book, there’s reason to believe that Ada has turned a corner. What her new direction will ultimately mean is unclear, but that feels right, too. This is a book about the eternal mysteries of the self, and that’s not a mystery that’s easily solved.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 2 Comments

The Parasites

The Delaney children had an unconventional childhood, moving all around, spending time backstage as their famous parents performed, their only constant being each other. And as adults, the can’t seen to form strong relationships with other people.

In this 1950 novel, Daphne du Maurier uses a sort of combined first/third person perspective to tell the Delaneys’ story, as if all three are telling the story together. Their reflections are kicked off with an accusation from eldest sister Maria’s husband, Charles — that the three siblings are parasites, relying on their parents’ fame and the whims of the public, and feeding off each other. The trio start looking back:

“I wonder if we see them with the same eyes,” [Maria] said thoughtfully, “Pappy and Mama, I mean. And the days that were, and being children, and growing up, and everything we did.”

“No,” said Niall, “we all have a different angle.”

“If we pooled our thoughts there would be a picture,” said Celia. “but it would be distorted. Like this day, for instance. We shall each of us see it differently when it’s over.”

The book is itself the pooling of thoughts that Celia proposes. There’s no shift from narrator to narrator, and limited use of we. But the sense is that this picture is their combined perspective.

The eldest Delaney, Maria, is the daughter of Pappy and a Viennese actress. She herself goes onto the stage, although it’s never clear to her how much of her fame is due to her family name. Niall, the middle child, is the son of Mamma and a French pianist. He, too, inherits the family talent and becomes a pianist, although he’s somewhat jaded about his career and lacks discipline. Celia, daughter of Pappy and Mama, is more of a caregiver, although she has artistic talent and potential for success.

All three siblings exist as individuals, but their relationships with each other shape their fates. Maria and Niall have a strong bond, one that sometimes looks like sexual attraction, although it’s never clear to what degree the step-siblings have acted on it or are even fully, consciously aware of it. They certainly rely on one another for emotional support, often in ways that appear unhealthy. Celia is also relied on, but not so much for emotional support as actual physical help. She’s the one who takes care of Pappy as he ages, who capably babysits Maria’s children. No one ever seems to have much concern for her feelings and ambitions, and it’s not clear if Celia prefers it that way. She has opportunities that she wants to take, but she also wants to be there for her family.

As a group, the Delaneys are not especially likable, and I can understand Charles’s exasperation with them. But I mostly felt sorry for them. They’re locked in relationships and ways of living that are clearly not good for them, but they can see no way out. When they do strike out on their own, a plea for help pulls them back in. But is Charles right that they’re parasites? To me, the idea that they use their family name and the public fascination with them to gain success is not the problem. They can’t help that, and they do have genuine talent. They also, to varying degrees, want to be good at what they do. The problem is the way they feed on each other’s worst tendencies. It’s lovely that they have each other, but they don’t quite have themselves.

I read this as part of Ali’s Daphne du Maurier reading week. Visit her blog for more reviews of du Maurier’s work.

Posted in Classics, Fiction | 6 Comments

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened at the recent death of Rachel Held Evans, the author and blogger who helped so many people see that Christianity is a faith of love and acceptance, even when so many of its adherents fail to be loving and accepting. I read her blog off and on for years and very much appreciated her book Searching for SundayMy own faith journey was not unlike hers in that we were both raised in conservative evangelical churches and eventually made our way to the Episcopal church, while retaining a lot of concern for and interest in our more evangelical brethren.

I’ve had her most recent book, Inspired, on my shelf for a few months, and my sadness over her death got me to pull it off my shelf and read it. It’s similar to Searching for Sunday, except that instead of examining beliefs about the church, Inspired looks at how Christians have understood the Bible. In her view (and mine), the Bible is a collection of books of different genres and styles, and it’s important to consider the culture and worldview from which each book came when determining what it means. The Bible is ultimately not a literal history text (although it contains true stories), nor is it an instruction manual on how to live life (although it contains a great deal of good wisdom and advice).

Much of what Evans discusses here was not new to me. I studied the Bible at a fairly progressive seminary, and my church’s Education for Ministry program explored many of the same questions she tackles, but with greater depth. However, as with Searching for Sunday, I would have found this book immensely helpful, even life-changing, had I encountered it during the years when I was struggling with how my own attempts to understand the Bible in a literal way led me down paths that made no sense. Evans sums up my own feelings during that period:

The truth is, you can bend Scripture to say just about anything you want it to say. You can bend it until it breaks. For those who count the Bible as sacred, interpretation is not a matter of whether to pick and choose, but how to pick and choose. We’re all selective. We all wrestle with how to interpret and apply the Bible to our lives. We all go to the text looking for something, and we all have a tendency to find it. So the question we have to ask ourselves is this: are we reading with the prejudice of love, with Christ as our model, or are we reading with the prejudices of judgment and power, self-interest and greed? Are we seeking to enslave or liberate, burden or set free?

In each chapter, Evans tackles a different sort of Bible story — origin stories, deliverance stories, war stories, wisdom stories, resistance stories, gospel stories, fish stories, church stories. She introduces each of these chapters with her own riffs on the biblical stories, often bringing them into a modern context. (These were clever, but not particularly my favorite parts of the book. I imagine they are the sort of thing that will totally work for you, or really won’t work much at all.) Each chapter then goes on to talk about some of the controversies surrounding the different narratives, how Evans herself has grappled with them, and what various scholars and preachers have had to say about them.

My favorite chapter was the one on war stories, in which Evans writes about how difficult it is to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the triumphant stories of violent conquest in much of the Bible. And it’s not just the stories that are troubling, there’s also the tendency of so many Christians to avoid asking hard questions about them at all. It’s in the Bible, so it must be ok. But that’s not good enough:

When you can’t trust your own God-given conscience to tell you what’s right, or your own God-given mind to tell you what’s true, you lose the capacity to engage the world in any meaningful authentic way, and you become an easy target for authoritarian movements eager to exploit that vacuity for their gain. I tried reading Scripture with my conscience and curiosity suspended, and I felt, quite literally, disintegrated. I felt fractured and fake.

Instead, Evans encourages readers to wrestle with the text, as Jacob wrestled with God in the desert. She doesn’t come to any conclusion about how to read these texts, other than to keep wrestling, looking to the stories in the margins, particularly of women. And don’t settle for unsatisfactory answers:

I’m in no rush to patch up these questions. God save me from the day when stories of violence, rape, and ethnic cleansing inspire within me anything other than revulsion. I don’t want to become a person who is unbothered by these texts, and if Jesus is who he says he is, then I don’t think he wants me to be either. There are parts of the Bible that inspire, parts that perplex, and parts that leave you with an open would, I’m still wrestling, and like Jacob, I will wrestle until I am blessed. God hasn’t let go of me yet.

Posted in Nonfiction, Religion | 2 Comments

Don’t Look Now

The nine short stories in this collection by Daphne du Maurier are wonderfully dark, some of them downright terrifying. Two of them — “Don’t Look Now” and “The Birds”— have been made into classic horror films, and the stories are even scarier, especially in the case of “The Birds.” I love the Hitchcock film, but the sense of doom in this story is much greater, as du Maurier makes it clear that the crisis exists beyond the immediate setting. When the story ends, I still couldn’t help but feel that it was only a matter of time before the birds would win.

A few of the stories are just brief little curiosities. There’s “The Escort,” about a ghostly ship; “Indiscretion,” which is more comic than the other stories; and “La Sainte-Vierge,” which is probably the saddest of the stories. There’s no complex plot or character development in these stories. They just capture a moment of irony or strangeness, more startling perhaps than terrifying. And they’re short enough that they didn’t wear out their welcome, even if they aren’t stories that will stick with me.

Two other stories were entertaining enough, but offered little that really surprised me. “Kiss Me Again, Stranger” involves a man becoming captivated by a mysterious woman he meets in a movie theater. I found this pretty predictable, and the main character much too easily duped, which I guess was the point. “Monte Verita,” the longest story in the collection, is about a woman who disappeared in a hidden mountain city. I liked the idea of it, but I think it was longer than it needed to be.

Besides “The Birds,” the stories that made the strongest impression on me were “Split Second” and “Blue Lenses,” both of which center on women trying to explain situations that no one understands. In “Split Second,” a woman leaves her house to go on a walk, and when she returns she finds her house filled with strangers and all her things gone. In “Blue Lenses,” a woman has surgery on her eyes and wakes up to find that she sees everyone in a different and alarming way. In both cases, the women are certain of their own experiences, but no one believes them. What they are experiencing is terrifying enough without the additional problem of not being listened to. And, like in “The Birds,” there seems to be nothing that can be done about it.

Whenever I read Daphne du Maurier, I hunger to read more. Nothing of hers I’ve read so far tops My Cousin Rachel, which is a masterpiece of unreliable narration and ambiguous characterization. But everything I’ve read of hers has been a pleasure. What’s your favorite du Maurier?

I read these stories back in April and early May, but I saved the post until now, as part of the Daphne du Maurier reading week, hosted by Ali. Visit her blog for links to more or follow the #DDMreadingweek hashtag on Twitter.

Posted in Classics, Short Stories/Essays | 16 Comments

Praise Song for the Butterflies

Abeo Kata had a happy, relatively uneventful life in Ukemby (a fictional country between Ghana and Togo). There were some minor dramas here are there, but she was mostly shielded from them, focusing instead on the fun times, such as when her aunt Serafine came to visit from America. All of that changed when her father was placed under investigation for crimes committed in the government office where he worked. That event, plus some other trials and tragedies that followed close behind, led him to give Abeo to one of the shrines in the area, where she would live as a trokosi, or ritual slave.

Bernice L. McFadden shines a light on a horrifying practice, but I found the novel ultimately frustrating. It felt too slight for the subject matter, full of deep emotion but skirting quickly over it to focus on inconsequential details and characters.

The book’s chapters are short, often just three or four pages, and I was quickly swept along in the story. But at almost every turn, I wanted more. Momentous events occur over just a page or two, and then make little impact on the plot. There was a point where a character is extremely sick, leading to disastrous consequences, but then he almost disappears from the plot, causing me to look back and see if he actually died. A few characters are given lengthy introductions, just to bring about a single plot point and vanish. It just feels incomplete and the emotional moments unearned.

I’m not one who thinks a book needs to wallow in tragedy to effectively tell a tragic story. I appreciated, for example, that the novel skips over most of Abeo’s time in servitude. But moving too quickly over it, especially over the recovery, has the effect of simplifying the process. To be clear, the narrative says that many of the emotional beats take time, but we readers are given no way to feel that time.

I also found the writing a little awkward, with strange word choices that pulled me out of the story. This is the kind of thing I often don’t notice if I’m enjoying a book, but when a book isn’t working for me, I sometimes can’t avoid seeing it.

Still, with all this said, the book reads quickly, and I never stopped caring about what happened to the characters. I just wanted more time to dig into their experiences.

Posted in Fiction | 2 Comments

Never the Bride

Having lived a (very very) long life, Brenda, the narrator of this novel by Paul Magrs, has settled in Whitby to run her own B&B. Her best friend Effie has a junk shop next door, and the two ladies enjoy going out for meals together. But they keep running up against strange happenings, which complicate their calm lives and may even lead to the revealing of Brenda’s own darkest secret.

This is a cheerfully Gothic novel, which turns dark classic tales (Frankenstein, War of the Worlds, Dracula) and adds a dash whimsy. I wasn’t surprised to see that Magrs has written Doctor Who novels and plays. The tone is very similar.

The book has an episodic structure, with each chapter describing a different problem or adventure that Brenda and Effie encounter. There’s the deadly spa that literally takes years off clients’ lives. There’s the unusual family that comes to stay at Brenda’s B&B. There’s the psychic reality show that comes to investigate Effie’s shop. There are the mysterious disappearances of the waiters/elves who work at the Christmas Hotel. And there’s the suave hotel guest, Mr. Alucard. Each incident just about stands on its own, but together, they all build up to a big showdown and some big decisions for Brenda and Effie.

This book is the first in a series, and I can see how these characters would be fun to follow. Alas, my library doesn’t carry the series, and the books don’t appear to be easy to get here in the U.S. And I didn’t love it quite enough to put in a big effort to get more. If I run across them someday, I’d happily give them a try.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 4 Comments

Ghost Wall

Seventeen-year-old Silvie and her parents have joined up with a group of experiential archaeology students to spend part of their summer in rural England, attempting to live as the people of the iron age did. They wear simple tunics, forage and hunt for food, and cook over a fire, using, as best they can, the same kinds of tools used in ancient times.

As the story unfolds, it gradually becomes clear that all is not well for Silvie and her family. First, it’s revealed that her father is not, as I had assumed, a scholar looking to better understand the past, but a hobbyist with an enthusiasm for the past. That in itself is not a bad thing, but it’s just one example of how author Sarah Moss sets up a scenario and slowly unravels our (and the characters’) expectations. The unease that Silvie and her mother feel about the whole thing starts to looks more like unease about Silvie’s father. And then that unease looks like fear … and so on.

This novella, only 130 pages, shows how well a short book can pack a serious wallop. The story itself contains plenty of drama on its own, but there’s far more under its surface. The depiction of Silvie and her mother shows how years of abuse can wear down a person. And how the abuse becomes normal.

But the book gets into more than that. Silvie’s father romanticizes the past, which on its own need not be a bad thing. However, it becomes evident that he’s not just interested in the ingenuity of iron age people in how they made and used tools or their ability to subsist with so little. He also appreciates the brutality and violence of the time, although the question is raised more than once that his perceptions of what the past was like may not be entirely accurate, and certainly the victims of violence suffered, even if the violence was perceived as normal.

The more unsettling aspect of the book is how easily people can be brought along into points of view they would, on reflection, consider odious. There’s a scene where the characters enact their idea of an iron age ceremony, and almost everyone gets swept up in the chant, even if, when it started, it seemed like a bit of a lark. The characters’ actions in that particular scene were innocent enough on their face, but the question becomes, what else could they be coaxed into doing, the heat of the moment, while caught up in the energy of the group? What would anyone be willing to do when caught up in such a moment?

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction | 12 Comments

The Secret Place

The Secret Place of Tana French’s fifth novel is a bulletin board at St. Kilda’s School, where girls can leave notes, sharing their secrets anonymously. When Holly Mackey, daughter of Frank Mackey from The Likeness and Faithful Place, finds a note about the murder of Chris Harper, a student at the nearby boys’ school, she brings it to Stephen Moran, the detective she got to know during Faithful Place. Stephen sees this tip as an opportunity to move from cold cases to the murder squad, so he brings it to Antoinette Conway, the detective in charge of the case. Lacking a partner, Antoinette brings Stephen with her to question the girls at the school.

This novel proceeds along two strands. There’s the present-day strand, almost all of which takes place on the day Stephen and Antoinette question the students and search the school to learn who left the note and, perhaps, who murdered Chris. The other strand takes place in the past, following the students in the months prior to the murder, revealing how the girls relate to each other and to Chris.

I’ve enjoyed all of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad books immensely, so when I saw this book is on a lower tier than the other, I’m not expressing strong dissatisfaction. It’s a very good book, but it’s not on the level of Broken Harbor (my favorite so far) or The Likeness. I think French was trying to do some interesting things by juxtaposing a near real-time investigation with the flashback storyline. And the way she captures the feelings of the teenage girls at the heart of the book is truly remarkable. All the insecurities, fears, excitements, and wonder of being that age are right there, as is the interaction between individual and group identity that becomes so important at that age.

But the intersecting timelines, one in near real-time and the other over months, creates a herky-jerky sense of momentum that made it harder for me to get absorbed in this book. Plus, Stephen himself is not a very interesting character. I didn’t remember him at all from Faithful Place, although some descriptions that appear late in this book refreshed my memory. His ambition is supposed to be his driving quality, but, aside from his entirely understandable decision to try to get in on the investigation, there’s little evidence of it being such a major force in his psyche until late in the book. Until then, he looks like someone who just wants to do well. There are some great moments between him and Antoinette and Frank Mackey late in the book, but it’s not until then that he and his career started to mean much to me.

The girls of St. Kilda’s are much more interesting characters, although it took me a while to get all of them and their various relationships straight. Their story feels a little more complicated than it needed to be, and there’s are some supernatural elements involved that didn’t entirely work for me, although I could appreciate what French was trying to capture there. I’m curious what others who’ve read this book thought about that aspect of the story.

I expect I’ll get to The Trespasser by the end of the year. I’m eager to see how Antoinette works as a principal character. For most of this book, she interested me more than Stephen did.

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 6 Comments